The Fork, Lucius vs Marcus and the Choice of Heracles
Marcus' brother Lucius partied hard and was not a virtuous man. However, Marcus still learned from him. "Marcus says only that he's grateful for having had a brother 'who by his character was able to stimulate me to cultivate my own nature.'" Marcus "became more determined to strengthen his own character after observing his brother's vices spiraling out of control." p. 116
We see many in life who chase after pleasures, whether to avoid emotional pain, or to distract "themselves from or [suppress] unpleasant feelings or as a way to escape" p. 117. Stoics know that "chasing empty, transient pleasures can never lead to true happiness in the long run" p. 117. Instead, Stoics choose to seek a life that enjoys "authentic happiness or fulfillment" which they called eudaimonia.
This fork in our road, whether to choose a life of ease and pleasure, or to choose a life of true, enduring happiness, is what many of us face. The Stoics and Robertson portray this fork as "The Choice of Heracles"
Donald Robertson has done a nice video of this allegory:
And so you too face this same choice. Do you pursue a life of ease and pleasure to achieve happiness or is it "more rewarding to face hardship voluntarily and cultivate strength of character"? p. 121
Heracles is a Stoic hero, as he cheerfully faced challenges and hardships and was able to achieve "a profound sense of inner satisfaction knowing that he was fulfilling his destiny and expressing his true nature. His life had something far more satisfying than pleasure: it had purpose." p. 121
Marcus decided to choose the same path, as Heracles, when he was faced with that fork; "the goal of his life [was] not pleasure but action" p. 123
Marcus "picked his friends carefully, based on the character traits he most admired rather than what seem congenial to those of his social class. His friends' company wasn't always fun - sometimes they spoke plainly and criticized him - but he embraced them because they shared his values and helped to improve him as a person." p. 124
The Stoics Side with Heracles and the Country (Hill) Mouse
If you haven't figured it out by now, the Stoics argue a life of challenges, hardships and action is what is best. This is why the Stoics repeatedly say "virtue is the sole good."
Aesop's fable of the country mouse and city mouse underscore this key point. "The country mouse says he would rather dine like a peasant than risk being eaten alive by ravenous dogs." Marcus makes the same observation in Meditations Book 11.22 when he wrote, "The hill mouse and the house mouse - and the frightened scurrying of the house mouse."
Greed, pleasures and the like won't lead to sustained happiness. It is a false hope. On the other hand, a life of virtue and equanimity and facing adversity with cheerfulness will lead to genuine fulfillment. This is wisdom.
"The wise man's sense of delight comes from one thing alone: acting consistently in accord with virtue." Marcus also notes that two other sources of joy which come from contemplating virtue in others and welcoming your fate. p. 132-133
Stoic Practices for Changing Desires p. 135-150
- Evaluate the consequences of your habits / desires in order to select the ones you want to change
- it's not just identifying the ones you want to drop, but it's also identifying ones you want to introduce in their place
- learn self control; other virtues ... especially courage and moderation
- look at the habits in the long run
- write down the pros and cons of the bad and good habits
- picture the positive consequences of dropping the bad and replacing them with the good
- Spot early warning signs so that you can nip the problem in the bud
- self-monitoring is key ... use Stoic mindfulness
- keep a journal of emerging desires (date/time/place, early warnings, scale of the urge, scale of the pleasure, other thoughts)
- "study yourself" and know your triggers and high-risk situations, looking for "signs that typically precede the desire"
- Gain cognitive distance by separating impressions from external reality
- simply notice the delineation between your perspective/impression and the external reality of the situation ... this leads to separating our values from external events. Personally, I call this "minding the gap."
- Whatever this impression of your's is, you need to "apostrophize" it by telling it "you are just a thought and not at all the thing you claim to represent" ... recall when Kakia approached Heracles, she called herself Eudomonia. This is the same thing ... the impression is not real, it is false.
- by "defusing" these thoughts, you weaken the desire
- if it helps, imagine a role model or your trusted mentor is watching you and imagine what they would say ... this is a form of using accountability to distance yourself from your impression
- use the Discipline of Assent to break the impression of the thing down into something that isn't so impressive ... a divide and conquer or depreciation by analysis. This is where a purple robe is just cloth with the shellfish blood dye in it; wine is just dead grapes, etc.
- don't use such rhetorical language like "I'm dying for some chocolate. Why is it so good? It tastes like heaven! This is better than sex!"
- perhaps think of yourself like a scientist and view desires and impressions of things from a detached, clinical, perspective
- regarding sex, Marcus described it as "the rubbing together of body parts followed by a convulsion and the ejaculation of some mucus. Not very romantic, but that's the point - he was aiming to neutralize inappropriate sexual urges ... the point isn't to obliterate all desire but rather to moderate unhealthy or excessive desires." p. 146-147
- Do something else instead of engaging in the habit / desire
- remind yourself often that you are always free to do something else
- "do something that gives you a sense of genuine accomplishment"
- "replace unfulfilling habits and desires with activities that you find more intrinsically rewarding"
- when thinking of habits we want to instill in our lives, "we should be guided more by the qualities we admire in other people and our true values" p. 149
- "if you want to be a good role model for your children, you should ask yourself what sort of person you are and what qualities you want to exhibit." p. 149
- "we aim for wisdom and strength of character not because we're hoping to gain something else but simply because that's who we want to be in life." p. 149
Addition of the Improvement Cycle
- Like Marcus did in Book 1, set aside time to think about the qualities in others that you love and wish to add to your character
- visualize and contemplate these qualities and how you might instill them in your life
- GRATITUDE plays a big role in the management of desires, by imagining you've lost certain things; keep a gratitude journal
- Morning Meditation
- picture how you will cope with the day's challenges ahead and what virtues you will use and how you will instill the desired characteristics in your life for that day
- During the Day
- be mindful, look for triggers and signs for impressions and desires
- every day is practice! every day is an opportunity to become better!
- Evening Meditation
- Review your day's events three times
- Identify what you did well and what you didn't do so well
- Praise yourself for the well-done and coach yourself for the ones that need improvement, imagine your mentor coaching you
- With the above 3-step improvement cycle, you have the foundation and system for improving yourself and becoming more Stoic